Student Talk

Reading Workout with Literary Nonfiction and Memoir Book Clubs

Inspired by the always innovative Sarah Brown Wessling, I adapted an activity she shared this past December that she calls Reading Workouts for independent reading time.  I made a few modifcations to account for a shorter literacy block of time and the needs of my 8th grade learners, but here is my version that was a great success this past Friday.

My 4th period (the class I take to lunch) was the only class that completed this activity as a warm-up because we had extra class time, and I didn’t want to jump into the activity with only 15 minutes before our scheduled lunch time.  If time had permitted, I would have done the “warm-up/stretch” with all classes; this was a great way to get them thinking before reading time.

For all other classes, we began with a quick review of concepts we had worked on the previous day:

We then began the first formal part of our workout!  Our focus was on reading; I told students to NOT take notes at this point or to annotate, but they could use the “baby” size sticky notes to quickly flag passages of interest.  I provided baskets of the sticky notes needed for the day at every table to save time and provide ease of access to the materials.

We then moved to the second part of our workout.  Students could choose any partner they wanted; it did not have to be someone from their book club.  We lined up 2×2 outside the room and began our walking reps.  One partner led the conversation for the first rep/lap; the second partner led on the second rep/lap.  This “walk and talk” part of the workout is another idea I’ve adapted previously from Wessling.  For our reading workout, we did a modified/shorter version to fit the reading workout structure.

We then moved to the next part of our reading workout:

We then ended/cooled down with this graffiti wall/parking lot activity for our books:

This work was a great formative assessment to see how well (or not so well) students were understanding themes and issues in their books as well as the concepts/terms  of theme and issues themselves.  I created the gallery of book graffiti walls/parking lots with chart paper and signage I crafted in Word.  You can see the gallery and student work samples in the slideshow below.  We’ll get into the parking lots/graffiti walls for a gallery walk activity later this week and then continue adding our thinking about themes and issues as we get deeper into our books this month.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

You can see, hear, and learn more about the design of this activity in the video I made after school this past Friday.  I love this learning structure and plan to use it again later this year!  A big thank you to Sarah Brown Wessling for always generously sharing her ideas for the rest of us to use as they are or to adapt for our learners!  In my next post, I’ll share how we are moving forward with our book club thinking work this week, including choices for gentle note-taking strategies as we read.

Powerful Practice: Read Aloud Reading Partners with Informational Text

One of the simplest but most powerful practices this fall has been read aloud reading partners.  I love the learning structure because it’s so versatile and can be used in multiple ways.

On a simple level, I used it last week when I lost my voice and needed students to review instructions for an annotation activity we were going to do in class that day.  I had students choose a partner and review the instructions together.  Then pairs summarized what they were to do with the learning task for that day.  They definitely internalized and understood the instructions much better than if I had just read them aloud and they had been passive receivers of those instructions!

Yesterday we did a learning activity to help students review a simple strategy to read strategically and find their textual evidence for an upcoming timed essay they will do on our second district benchmark assessment next week.  The task asks students to read two paired texts and then compose an expository or informational essay of some sort about those texts.

I pulled a set of paired texts through GALILEO, our state digital library; the paired texts are from the December 2019 issue of Scholastic Scope (citation at the end of this article):

I used a Sharpie to “chunk” and number sections of the articles to read before making a class set  to use.  I find that chunking and numbering sections helps the partner reading flow a little more efficiently since students can clearly see a section at a time.   I also created this hypothetical writing task:

Once students arrived to class, we followed these procedures:

  1.  Students selected a reading partner of his/her choice and sat either knee to knee, face to face OR side by side.  If we had an odd number of student, I did allow trios.
  2. Students took turns reading the passages aloud.  I gave the partners just one copy of the text for this activity to force them to listen a little more closely.
  3. Once students finished reading both articles, they raised their hands for the T-chart planning activity to do a treasure hunt for textual evidence that they would use in the essay prompt.

The last part of the activity was having groups share out their findings of the textual evidence and how we might organize that evidence into our hypothetical writing task.   We talked about how to use a T-chart to quickly note textual evidence/concrete details and then use them in our writing task on the assessment.  We then reviewed how we could use our paragraph writing structures we’ve practiced all fall with “two chunk” paragraphs ( we have practiced with scaffolded writing graphic organizers with sentence frames and sentence starters this fall) and how we might modify it for a timed writing setting of only 45 minutes.

I wanted to have students to read the paired texts aloud for a variety of reasons:

  1.  Students were forced to be more active readers and listeners and engage more closely with the text.
  2.  Students got an opportunity to practice their reading skills and speaking in a low-stakes setting.
  3.  Most students discussed each section as they read and took turns reading the “chunks” in both articles; they discussed with no prompting from me!  These short but important discussions are part of the meaning making process.

It was a jam packed class session but one I think that was successful and enjoyable for students, especially the Friday before our holiday break and on the eve of our district benchmark.   How do you incorporate read alouds or reading partners into your instruction with students?

Bartolomeo, Joey, and Jennifer Dignan. “Paired Texts.” Scholastic Scope, vol. 68, no. 4, Dec. 2019, pp. 16–21. EBSCOhost,


Growing Our Conversation Skills with Socratic Seminar

We are continuing to grow our discussion skills in my 8th grade classes with a variety of conversation strategies.  Prior to Thanksgiving break, we engaged in a Socratic Seminar over a variety of related texts.   If you want to see some additional interesting twists on Socratic Seminar, check out this great blog post.

While I’ve incorporated Socratic Seminars into my middle and high school classrooms in the past, this year I used new resources to scaffold student thinking and help them feel prepared.  I primarily used these resources from Write on with Ms. G., but I also utilized some materials from The Daring English Teacher.  I highly recommend both, especially for students new to Socratic Seminar.

I first gave students two class days and a weekend to complete the discussion prep materials.  I provided two sets of examples to help students generate their own thinking related to one or more of the following texts (these depended on class period since classes voted on some of the reading choices for texts related to identity, family, and culture):

  • “Names/Nombres” by Julia Alvarez
  • “The Medicine Bag” by Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve
  • “Peaches” by Adrienne Su
  • “I Ask My Mother to Sing” by Li-Young Lee
  • An assortment of nonfiction articles students read related to identity, family, and culture

In addition to the prep work, we watched a video of an 8th grade Socratic Seminar (about a 5 minute clip) and discussed what we saw happening in terms of content, conversation skills, and discussion manners.   I think this step was important to help my 8th graders visualize what we would be doing since most have never been part of a Socratic Seminar discussion before now.

During the seminar, each group had two tools to help them during their inner circle participation.

I reminded students they would not be talking to me, but instead, they would be talking to each other.  I made it very clear my role was just to facilitate beginnings and endings and to be the most excellent observer taking notes of their discussion since the activity was a performance assessment.  I used the following codes to make my notes and help me remember what each student did:

In addition to the codes, I wrote out notes and observations of both the inner and outer circle in the white space on the front and back of each roster sheet.

We were able to complete our seminar discussions right within the 50 minute time frame.   I also decided who was in the inner circle first and projected those names on the board to get things started as soon as possible.

In all classes, we had just enough time to complete the first mini self-assessment right after the seminar (see below) while things were still fresh on the students’ minds.

The next day, we did an extended self-assessment with the following form; in addition, we completed a digital reflection with a Google Form for each class period.  On all assessments, students were extremely honest and spot-on with their self-assessment and observations.  I was truly impressed by their candor and critical thinking about their work.

The response to the seminar was overwhelmingly positive; even students who wished they had participated more in the discussion shared they would like another opportunity to be part of a seminar.  I do have students this year who are struggling why shyness or fear that others will make fun of them.   Others have expressed they get scared and nervous when speaking in front of their classmates even when it is not a formal speech or presentation.  This is the first year I’ve had a noticeable number of students in each class who struggle with these issues, so I am hoping that TQE discussions will be a gentler entry point for those learners.

Overall, I was thrilled with the great dialogue my students engaged in during the seminars.  While there were a few who struggled, most made a good faith effort to participate by sharing questions, listening and responding to others, and inviting others into the conversation.  I appreciated the leadership that many students showed in the seminar as well.  What strategies do you like to use to support high quality Socratic Seminar discussions?

Accelerating Student Dialogue with Speed Dating Discussions

In recent years, I’ve been very intentional about integrating student discussion strategies along with the hard academic skills and soft social skills inherent in student conversations for learning.  Our state 8th grade English Language Arts standards also value speaking and listening as well as comprehension and collaboration:

ELAGSE8SL1: Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade 8 topics and texts, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly.
a. Come to discussions prepared, having read or researched material under study; explicitly draw on that preparation by referring to evidence on the topic, text, or issue to probe and reflect on ideas under discussion.
b. Follow rules for collegial discussions and decision-making, track progress toward specific goals and deadlines, and define individual roles as needed.
c. Pose questions that connect the ideas of several speakers and elicit elaboration and respond to others’ questions and comments with relevant evidence, observations, and ideas.
d. Acknowledge new information expressed by others, and, when warranted, qualify or justify their own views and understanding in light of the evidence presented.

In early November, we utilized a discussion strategy I first learned in Dr. Bob Fecho’s class way back in the fall of 2002 at the University of Georgia:  speed dating.  I’ve used it over the years with middle and high schoolers for a variety of topics and texts, and I’ve done assorted variations of it with great success–it is always a student favorite.  This year I decided to provide my students some scaffolding by using these resources to facilitate discussion and reflection.

The biggest challenge for my 8th graders was understanding to pass their discussion ticket to the left while moving their bodies to the next seat to the right during our rotations.  For my team taught class, I eliminated the discussion tickets and just projected a common discussion topic on the board for each rotation.  Texts for discussion included the story “Fish Cheeks” and the poems “I Ask My Mother to Sing” and “Peaches.”  I was able to modify the prompts with this template, and I then printed them out on colored paper before cutting into strips.

Depending on how many texts we were discussing per class (again, I differentiated for each class period), we either completed one day or two days of speed dating chats with roughly 3-4 minutes of discussion per rotation.

For my smaller team taught class discussion group, we did a variation by spreading out discussion partners around the room.  This method of “speed dating” (we still did rotations!) worked great for this class because it was not so overwhelming and students weren’t distracted by conversations of people sitting right next to them.  This class, like my others, showed effort and growth with their discussion skills as well as their listening skills.

For all classes, students jotted down their notes in a 3 minute “pause” period I provided at the end of each discussion round.  Otherwise, I found 8th graders were focusing too much on writing down notes and not really listening or engaging in discussion with their partner.

At the end of the speed dating experience, students provided feedback on the speed dating chats and engaged in self-assessment of themselves with a Google Form.  Overall, the responses was very positive even from students who were reluctant to chat.  My 8th graders overwhelmingly shared they wanted to do more discussion opportunities like speed dating chats!  They also provided feedback on the timing of each discussion round as well as any suggestions for future speed dating chats with this form.

How do you scaffold student discussions, and how do you help them reflect on their discussion skills and interactions with others?

In my next few blog posts, I’ll share some additional discussion strategies we’ve used this fall, including Pop-Up Discussions (hat tip to Dave Stuart, Jr.) and Socratic Seminars.

Supporting Writers in Progress: Paired Texts Study, Comparing/Contrasting, and Literary Argument Paragraphs

Earlier this month, we composed our first literary argument paragraph, a stepping stone to an extended piece of writing we’ll do in early November as part of our work from the writing unit, The Literary Essay:  Analyzing Craft and Theme.

Part 1:  Introducing and Immersing Ourselves in a Paired Text

Let me start by backing up into late September.  We had just finished our study of “Thank You Ma’m” and took a day to read/listen to “Kindness” by Naomi Shihab Nye, a great paired text companion to this short story.  We began by reading the poem together and took a second pass at reading it by listening to Nye read it herself.  For the first reading, I simply asked students to listen; on the second reading, I asked students to complete these tasks as we listened and read:

  • Read along as we listen.
  • Circle any words that get your attention as being descriptive or vivid or unusual.
  • Continue to think about the mood of the poem and the words that create that mood or feeling.

We then reviewed our annotation strategies notes from Cris Tovani and Beers/Probst.

Next, we listened to Nye tell us a little of the backstory about the poem.  I then asked students to complete three high quality annotations of the poem, showing them an annotated model I had completed for another poem to help them.  Once students had time to re-read and complete three annotations, I asked them to choose his/her best annotation.  We then used the whole group share structure “Everyone Up!“; students were asked to share his/her best annotation and the passage he/she annotated.  Finally, we completed our thinking with a reflection Ticket Out the Door (see last photo below).

Part 2:  Comparing/Contrasting the Paired Texts

Our next step was to compare and contrast “Thank You Ma’m” and “Kindness” using this marvelous graphic organizer from Stacy Lloyd.  I actually modified it a bit to help my students cover all the bases with their thinking points and included some scaffolding at their table to help them remember the terminology.  It took most students two days to complete this thinking task.

Part 3: Drafting the Literary Argument Paragraph

Our culminating activity that is a stepping stone to an essay we’ll do in about two weeks was composing a literary argument paragraph.  After students completed the compare/contrast activity, we reviewed the writing task 1:1, and I asked students to choose the claim statement he/she felt he/she could best argue.

Students received plenty of scaffolding to help them draft their paragraph; I provided highlighters to help them color code each piece of their draft.

I placed plenty of these at every table in my neon sheet protectors to help students as they drafted.

For those who needed even more scaffolding, I put together a graphic organizer to help them see each piece of the paragraph as they composed and highlighted.

The result was some of the best writing my students have completed so far this year.  As they completed their drafts, we conferenced, and it was so heartwarming to see their confidence in themselves and pride in their work!


These learning activities pushed my students’ thinking, and the culminating paragraph was a big step forward for my 8th grade writers.  How do you support higher level thinking and writing tasks?